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Like the dragon, the phoenix (“Phượng Hoàng” or “Fenghuang”) holds a special place in Vietnamese culture; both belong to the four sacred animals and are a complementary pair that represents goodness and nobility. Unlike the dragon which originated from the North, the phoenix may have its roots in the South.
Phoenix symbol emerges quite early in Chinese culture. More than seven thousand years ago, images appeared on pottery depicting a giant bird with a powerful and proportioned body, and a long neck and tail. They were probably worshiped as an indigenous totem. Some researchers argued that the phoenix derived from the South, in particular, from Vietnam. In his famous Chronicles, “The Records of the Grand Historian”, Sima Qian noted: “In the sixth year of the cat (1110 BC), under King Cheng of the Zhou dynasty, the Yue clans (Việt Thường) in Jiaozhi (Giao Chỉ) sent a messenger to offer a white pheasant as a tribute. The messenger did not remember the way back and therefore, Zhou Gong, the Duke of Zhou, sent five South-pointing carriages for him to follow the coastline back. It took the messenger one year to complete his journey home. The pheasant was later transformed into an iconic phoenix symbolizing modesty, nobility, and beauty of a woman.
In fact, “Phượng” and “Hoàng” are a male-female pair of phoenixes. In the Feng Shui theory or the Five Elements, the male-female pair were often shown together facing one another, as a symbol representing the South. Later, “Phuong” and “Hoang” were merged to become “Phuong Hoang (Phoenix)” symbolizing the noblest of bird species.
The image of the phoenix appeared very early in Vietnamese culture. Some people believed that the Lac bird symbol found on Dong Son bronze drums was the first portrayal. The bird was seen sacred, hovering in the dance of the universe towards reproduction and harmony. If the belief is true, since early time, the phoenix was already a bird totem of ancient Viet people.
Under the influence of Chinese civilization, the phoenix underwent changes but remained the most sacred animal representing the direction of south. The yin phoenix was paired with the yang dragon to create a complementary yin-yang pairing in the four symbols.
Like the dragon, the phoenix is a sacred bird. It possesses the best features of other creatures, including the rooster’s head, the jaw of a swallow, the snake’s neck, the tortoise’s back, and a fish’s tail. Its body contains five colors of the five elements, black, white, red, green and yellow. It also represents the six factors of the universe: the head as the sky, the eyes as the sun, the back as the moon, the wings as the wind, the feet as the earth, and the tail as the planets. As such, dancing phoenix symbolizes a moving universe.
In architecture and decoration, the phoenix symbol was even more prevalent and diverse than that of the dragon. The phoenix designs used extensively on the palace roofs of the Lý and Trần dynasties are highly artistic.
Today, giant ceramic phoenix heads discovered at the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long – Hanoi amazed visitors by their artistic quality. It was probably because of the influence of the phoenix that the ancient Imperial city of Thăng Long (present-day Hanoi) was once called the Phuong Citadel, later named “Long Phuong (Phoenix and Dragon) ” Citadel.
During the Lê dynasty (1428-1789), the phoenix symbol often associated with the empress, princesses, and concubines, while the dragon was a symbol of the king. Even the court women’s costumes were decorated with phoenix images, differentiated only by the wearer’s rank and position. During the Nguyễn dynasty (1802-1945), the rules governing the use of these images became extremely strict. The empress’s crown featured nine gold phoenixes, as did her robes. Other court women wore clothes featuring fewer phoenixes depending on the ranking.
In architecture, the phoenix image was found everywhere. From the rule of Emperor Minh Mạng to that of Emperor Tự Đức (1836-1859), the Gia Định Citadel in Huế was also called the Phoenix Citadel. This Citadel was leveled by the French colonialist after their invasion of South Vietnam. In the Imperial Capital of Huế, the entire wooden structure above the Ngọ Môn, the main gate to the inner city, was named Lầu Ngũ Phụng (Five-Phoenix Pavilion). Many would question why this structure bore this name. In fact, this was a symbolic name because the phoenix is the sacred bird representing the southern direction and the gate faces south.
Lầu Ngũ Phụng was also the place where the King invited and welcomed talents from across the country. At the time, the best scholars were compared to phoenixes. In the year of the Dog in 1898, five scholars from Quảng Nam province passed the national examination. The honor earned the province the title of “the place of the five soaring phoenixes gathering.”
In Huế’s palaces, the images of the phoenix were more associated with women. Diên Thọ Palace for the Queen Mother was decorated with phoenixes on its roofs. Similarly, phoenixes were shaped in pairs on top of the Trường Sanh Palace (home to the Grand Dowager Empress) and the screen of Khiêm Thọ tomb ( at the tomb of Queen Lệ Thiên – wife of Emperor Tự Đức).
The phoenix also appeared alone or with others in the four sacred animals on walls, gates, roofs, created with various materials such as wood, stone, porcelain. A typical beautiful image is a phoenix on a parasol tree (Firmiana platanifolia), signifying peace, prosperity and happiness. The parasol tree was believed to be the only tree on which this bird would perch. Perhaps this was the reason for Emperor Minh Mạng to plant four parasol trees at the back of Thái Hòa Palace and in front of Cần Chánh Palace. These magnificent old trees are still steadily blossoming violet flowers every time summer reaches the palaces.